The final hours of the Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad

A town ambulance sits inside the 11 Fairway Drive headquarters of the now-defunct Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad Saturday, June 30, 2018. American Ambulance has taken over services for the town. (Sten Spinella/The Day)
A town ambulance sits inside the 11 Fairway Drive headquarters of the now-defunct Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad Saturday, June 30, 2018. American Ambulance has taken over services for the town. (Sten Spinella/The Day)

Ledyard — On Saturday, June 30, they made fun of each other. They talked over each other. They ate pizza and they went on emergency services calls together.

Then they cried together. 

They are the Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad, and they are now defunct.

July 1 would've been LVES' 46th anniversary as an organization. A quasi-town agency, LVES, in its most recent iteration, was not incorporated, benefited from town funding, paid only three town employees, and drove ambulances owned by the town, fueled from its public works garage.

But this spring, the Town Council decided to hire American Ambulance to provide ambulance service to the town, ending the operation of LVES. The council took the action after a string of missed calls and slow response time by LVES.    

Over 45 years, LVES developed deep ties within the community. On their last shift on June 30, volunteers were clear about their desire to continue serving. The bitterness and melancholy from those gathered in Ledyard's emergency services building for that final shift was sometimes supplanted by humor and outright anger.

History, memories, gripes

The humor was at the expense of each other; the anger was toward Joey Hundley, former LVES director and the new leader of American Ambulance, as well as Mayor Fred Allyn III and the Town Council. They exempted John Marshall, LVES' council liaison and the only councilor who voted against the decision to seek out other ambulance services, from their complaints. Hundley declined to be interviewed for this story.

Although those final moments were bitter, the memories were sweet.

Kathee Ivey remembers going on a call with her father, Dave Olssen, a charter member of LVES in 1972, when they offered extra care for an elderly caller, who was suffering from abdominal pain due to being constipated for three days.

'"I can't leave because I don't know where my cat is,' so we find the cat," Ivey said. "'But the laundry basket,' my dad takes the laundry baskets. ... We were doing almost the woman's dishes, and I said to my father ... 'She was constipated for three days, she was a ticking time bomb, and you're spending 45 minutes on-scene feeding her cat!? Are you kidding me?'"

Volunteer Caron Wieringa vowed to keep her Ledyard Ambulance license plate on her car to show that LVES had not died, just shut down.

Director Rick Mumenthaler, talking about his training as a volunteer and the dedication to mission instilled in him, recalled his mentor, a firefighter, leaving black-tie affairs to fight fires in a tuxedo.

Olssen was the squad's first director, and in addition to his daughter, his grandson, Matthew Ivey, and granddaughter, Meghan Ivey, worked for LVES. Matthew, Kathee and Olssen most recently worked Monday night shifts together, which Olssen cherished.

Olssen said his former boss, before LVES began, "was a mean bastard" who "used to carry a gun, and he would get into a meeting, and he'd slam that gun on the table and scare the hell out of people." So when that ambulance service went out of business, Olssen was determined to start his own.

"We formed a new service in about three weeks," Olssen said. "We made a set of bylaws, and that was it. We communicated with the mayor, we communicated with the council, they were all in favor, they were in love with us, and we were supported."

Jason Wieringa, Caron's husband, said that he was thankful for Olssen, who forced him to learn by doing.

'"What the hell, just do it, don't be afraid,'" Wieringa said Olssen told him. "It's one of the biggest confidence-builders riding with him, because by the time you're out on your own, you know you can do anything. His teaching is always respecting the patient, their dignity."

Ivey said her bonus work, such as that with the elderly constipated woman, was an example of what American Ambulance, will never do, because the commercial organization is motivated by profit.

Caron Wieringa's license plate is a testament to LVES' impulse to go on serving despite being dismissed by the town mayor and council. Mumenthaler's role model was a case of a time gone by, when volunteers were more generous with their time.

Olssen's reminiscence of being treated kindly by town leadership contradicts what he said was a "toxic" relationship between this generation of LVES and Allyn and the Town Council.

On their final night, the volunteers were abruptly called to a 40-year-old man with abdominal pain and then, within seconds, a structure fire.

On her way out, Ivey spoke on the unpredictability of emergency medical services. Almost to her point, Ivey was shocked when Olssen said he was considering leaving Ledyard, his home of more than 50 years, after once telling her he'd be "buried in the backyard."

What's next, perceived disrespect, cause of death

When they returned, the topic of what the volunteers would do next came up.

Caron Wieringa might do roller derby work or apply to other emergency service companies in Mystic or Groton, according to Jason Wieringa. Kathee Ivey is training to be a firefighter and works a handful of part-time jobs. Mumenthaler is definitely taking a vacation. Afterward, he may drive ambulances for Lawrence + Memorial Hospital or work as an EMT at a nearby department.

They remain angry with the way the Town Council replaced them, without, to them, enough of a window to fix problems — slow response times, missed calls, internal strife and a lack of volunteers — that they admitted they had.

They were angry when they picked up pizza for that Saturday night at Valentino's; the employees there had no idea this was their last night working for the town; they were angry when a medic from Middlesex Hospital they'd encountered that night didn't know either; they were angry that the town hadn't done more to alert Ledyard residents to the change.

Allyn thought LVES had been given many opportunities to improve, going back six or seven years.

"Reading back in meeting minutes from 2011-2012, you have many of the same concerns then and much of the same in terms of member response of needing more time to correct the issues," Allyn wrote in an email. "Each time a concern was presented by the Town Council or mayor, a temporary corrective behavior might occur, only to revert to the old ways. In delivery of a life safety service, we don’t have years to correct a deficiency."

When LVES missed eight out of 10 calls on back-to-back weekends in March, the Town Council became involved. But before these weekends, a prolonged internal battle occurred, culminating in four top LVES officers stepping down in the midst of a snowstorm, two days before those same officers were to staff the organization for the weekend.

Town councilors did not find this to be a valid excuse.

"I expect to get better response time 24 hours a day, seven days a week for residents than they were receiving from LVES when the problems with response time and missed calls cropped up in March and April of this year," Councilor Bill Saums wrote in an email. "LVES did a great job for 45 years, and Ledyard is grateful for their service. More recently, that service standard was not met. ... I am disappointed it ended this way, but the Council could not sit by and do nothing."

Olssen and Mumenthaler said they were not thanked for LVES' service by anyone on the Council except Marshall.

At a March 18 Town Council meeting, Allyn said that if his elderly father had a medical issue, he could not count on an ambulance in town to respond.

Members of LVES said they lost respect for town leaders who they say had appeared to have already lost respect for LVES.

"It's pretty bad when you get a councilor in a town meeting that says, 'I would rather put my father in a vehicle and drive him to the hospital than to call for Ledyard Ambulance and wait for them to get there,'" Mumenthaler said. "It took a lot of control to keep myself and certain other people from getting up and going after the guy."

Allyn stands by his statement because in the several months preceding March, over the course of 85 calls, the ambulance's response time surpassed 18 minutes 40 percent of the time.

"I don't doubt that LVES members took exception to that statement as this statement likely hit a nerve, but having seen the response times and number of missed calls, it hit a nerve with me as well," Allyn wrote in an email.

LVES members say this data was cherry-picked from a time of turmoil for the organization, when Caron Wieringa filed a discrimination complaint against LVES and a number of volunteers disparaged Joey Hundley's alleged military-like leadership style. They said that the standards for measuring response time differed from neighboring departments — Kathee Ivey said Ledyard determined response times based on when the dispatch call came in rather than when LVES was actually dispatched to the scene.

According to Allyn, he and the Town Council made a utilitarian decision for better emergency services, and they anticipate such from American Ambulance.

"This was always about timeliness of delivery of life safety services and to that end, I expect to see no missed first calls, and quick responses to all calls, day or night, holiday or workday alike," Allyn wrote in an email.

LVES said it promised to change, and thought the town could have done more to recruit and retain volunteers and bolster the organization, but the town chose to hire American Ambulance. 

The end

As the clock crept toward 11:59 p.m., melancholy and recognition superseded laughter and anger. Members knew they would never again lead a funeral procession or stand by for high school sports games with LVES; Olssen would likely not be called to personally check people's blood pressures as he'd done in the past when patients did not want to call an ambulance.

At 11:54 p.m., the squad made its way downstairs into the dispatch center. Caron Wieringa signed off on the loudspeakers at 11:58 p.m., Mumenthaler at 11:59 p.m.

Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad head Rick Mumenthaler signing off for a final time and saying goodbye to the organization in the dispatch center.

As he talked, thanking the town and volunteers for 45 years, firefighters and members of LVES stared blankly ahead, or at the ground, or cried. They knew this day would come, but it was still an unwelcome surprise when it did.

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